Head coach Charlie Strong and sophomore guard Jake Smith met with reporters on Monday afternoon to preview 16th-ranked Louisville’s BIG EAST Conference opener at Pittsburgh. The Cardinals (5-0) and Panthers (2-3, 0-2 BIG EAST) kick off at 11 a.m., ET on Saturday at Heinz Field in a nationally televised game on ESPNU. U of L enters the game following its first bye week of the season, while Pitt is coming off of a 14-13 loss at Syracuse last Friday night. The Panthers, led by first year head coach Paul Chryst, have an impressive 35-17 home win over Virginia Tech on their resume this season and the team has improved throughout the early season.
“Anytime you have a coaching change, similar to where we were a few years ago, you’re really just trying to find your team,” Strong said of the Panthers on Monday. “If you look at what they’re trying to do offensively, I think they’ve sunk into what they really want to do, which is trying to run the football with the back they have. With the quarterback they have, they run some play-action and try to get the ball down the field. Against Virginia Tech, they scored a lot of points and moved the ball fairly well. Against Syracuse, they had a chance to go win that football game. They had their opportunities and just didn’t take advantage of it.”
In their most recent outing, the Cardinals earned a 21-17 rain-soaked win at Southern Mississippi on Sept. 29. Louisville is looking for its third straight road win, which would equal the program’s longest road winning streak under the guidance of Strong. During those road wins at FIU (28-21) and Southern Miss, the Cardinals did not appear to be as sharp as they were in the three home wins to open the season, which led the Louisville head coach to provide an update on the progress of his team entering this week’s game.
“Offensively, we’ve played fairly well and we’ve been able to move the football,” said Strong. “I like the way our receivers are continuing to compete. Our offensive line is blocking and they’re moving people out of the way allowing our running backs to run the ball. The quarterback is so poised right now. He started off hot, but as a unit, we can still improve. Defensively, we have to get better. You’re going to win games with defense and we know that. Defensively, we have a ways to go, but we’re looking each week, day-in and day-out, to work on our fundamentals and technique for improvement.”
Pitt Game Signals New Season
After playing five straight non-conference games to open their 2012 season, the Cardinals will begin their seven-game BIG EAST Conference slate with the matchup at Pittsburgh. Louisville is opening league play on the road for the fourth time since joining the BIG EAST in 2005. The Cards are 1-2 in BIG EAST openers on the road, including last season’s 25-16 loss at Cincinnati.
“It’s all about the conference race and that’s what is critical right now,” Strong said. “I know we’re playing Pittsburgh, but it’s the conference race that’s standing there in front of us. We have to make sure we don’t slip. It’s our first conference game and it’s on the road, so we need to go play well.”
Steel City Sunrise for the Cardinals
After playing a pair of night games to open the current three-game road stretch, the Cardinals will have a much different itinerary this week at Pittsburgh for the 11 a.m., ET kickoff. Saturday’s game will mark Louisville’s first pre-noon start for a game since the 11 a.m., ET kickoff at USF last November in the regular season finale. The early kickoff will lead to a much earlier start to the day for the Louisville players and coaches.
“With the game starting at 11 o’clock, it’s going to be an early rise,” said Strong. “We will get up early and it’ll be time to go play a football game, which is good. We will eat at around 7:30 and we’ll meet before, so we’ll get up around 6 or 6:15. We will have a kicking walk-through, eat our breakfast and it’ll be time to go play the game.”
Bye Week a Good Week for Louisville
After five consecutive weeks of game action to open the season, Louisville enjoyed its first bye week following the win at Southern Miss. The Cardinals used the week to focus on both fundamentals and early preparations for Pittsburgh. But just as important was the chance for the Louisville players to physically recover from a very successful and very demanding opening stretch.
“In a typical bye week, you get some time to get your legs back, which I think was huge for us,” Cardinals’ offensive lineman Jake Smith told reporters on Monday. “We practiced for three days last week and then we got Friday and Saturday off. Some guys went home and some guys just sat around their apartments or their dorms here. It was good though. Bye weeks are always a blessing because it’s such a grind during the season. It was good for us.”